Grey smiled briefly.
“I suppose you’re right. You’ve become very skilled at valeting, Tom.”
Tom nodded matter-of-factly at the compliment.
“Yes, I have, me lord. Not but what you could wear red silk and a diamond in your nose like the Earl of Sandwich. They’ll be talking of this funeral for months.”
Grey caught the slight emphasis on “this,” and looked sharply at Tom.
“Because of the tragic nature of the countess’s death, do you mean?”
“Aye, that—but more because of the earl. Did you know, me lord, the talk is that he…er…laid hands upon himself?” Tom spoke delicately, avoiding looking at Grey—which told Grey just how accurately the servants’ gossip at Jermyn Street had informed his valet regarding the Greys’ own family scandal. How long had Tom known about it? he wondered.
“I hadn’t, no.” So that was what was behind at least some of the Dunsanys’ agitation. “Does everyone know? The public at large, I mean, not just the servants here?”
“Oh, yes, sir! Jack the footman says the betting is five to three down the Bells, as how vicar will cut up rough tomorrow when they bring him in. Not let him be buried in hallowed ground, aye?”
“The vicar…what, is the earl being buried tomorrow, too?” He was momentarily staggered. He couldn’t think how he had overlooked the earl’s death—or rather, he could. No one had spoken of the late earl, or his untimely and coincidental demise. All the talk was of Geneva; none of the Dunsany household had mentioned the earl or his funeral at all, and he had unconsciously assumed that it had already taken place.
“Yes, me lord.” Tom looked pleased at being the bearer of interesting news. “The old earl hadn’t any kin, and Lord Dunsany was all for burying him on the quiet, like; tuck him safe away under the chapel floor up at Ellesmere. But Lady Dunsany wouldn’t have it. She said,” he lowered his voice portentously, “as how it would look fishy, see?”
“I am completely sure Lady Dunsany said nothing of the sort, but I take your meaning, Tom. And so?”
“And so she got her way. Ladies usually do, you know,” Tom informed him. “You want to be careful of that Lady Joffrey, me lord. She’s got her eye—”
“Yes, I know. So it was Lady Dunsany’s idea to bury the earl together with his wife?” Brazen it out with a lavish public funeral, and dare anyone to claim the earl’s death was not an accident. It was not a bad idea, he’d grant her that. It would give rise to more talk in the short run, of course—but if the vicar could be coerced into burying the earl in consecrated ground, it would put paid to the rumors of suicide, and the talk would die a natural death, with no lingering whiff of scandal to follow her grandson.
The coroner’s jury had brought back a verdict of accident, he knew. Such a jury was bound to be sympathetic to the Dunsanys, who were popular in the district. But if the vicar chose to make a scene…No wonder the Dunsanys were on edge.
“Yes, me lord. They was back and forth about it, and it wasn’t decided for sure until this morning, Mr. Hanks says. But the vicar will have heard. They’d have to send him word, if they meant him to do the funeral.”
Yes, and doubtless the vicar would be grappling with his own conscience through the night, if he had doubts about the matter.
Tom was hesitating, evidently wanting to ask something, but unsure how it might be received. Grey raised a brow, inviting Tom to speak.
“They said—is it true, me lord, as how if a nobleman does himself in, the Crown can take the estate?”
Grey felt a tightening of the belly, but answered calmly. That, of course, was why the jury had brought it in as accident.
“Yes. On the grounds that self-murder is a crime against God, and against the state, as well. But it is not an invariable consequence. The king may choose not to exercise confiscation, or the…suicide may be ruled to have taken place while the person’s mind was deranged, thus relieving him of the onus of crime.” He took a deep breath and turned round, looking directly at his valet. “That’s what was said of my father. That he was insane.”
Tom stared at him, expressionless, but with such a depth of sympathy in his eyes that Grey was obliged to turn away again, pretending to rummage for something in one of the saddlebags that had been brought up.
“I’m that sorry, me lord,” Tom said at last, so softly that Grey had the option of pretending not to have heard him. He thrust a hand into the saddlebag, feeling about at random, and closed his fist on something hard. It didn’t matter what. He closed his eyes and squeezed it as hard as he could, until the bones of his knuckles popped.
“Thank you,” he said, just as softly.
When he opened his eyes again, he was alone.
He could not sleep. It had been late when he left Dunsany, the old gentleman having reached a state of near insensibility over a decanter of claret after supper. Grey had given Dunsany over to the care of the viscount’s own valet, who got the old man to his feet and led him gently off to bed, shuffling and murmuring. Grey then sought his own bed, with the feeling that this day had lasted several years and was long overdue to be expunged by sleep.
Sleep, however, perversely declined to come knit up the raveled sleeve of care. Instead, the bad fairy of insomnia chose to take up residence on the foot of his bed, cozily recalling everything from Tom’s gory description of Geneva’s death to her father’s drunken self-reproaches, in which he blamed himself repeatedly for everything from arranging the marriage to allowing Geneva too much freedom.
His room was the same they always gave him. The Blue Room, it was called, for the patterned silk paper on the walls, repeated scenes of Dutch life, Delft blue on a cream background. Masculine in aspect, its furnishings luxurious, its hearth generous, it was one of the most comfortable rooms in the house. And yet he felt chilled and restless, at odds with his surroundings.
He was tired to the point of exhaustion, but found himself unable to relax into the comforts of the feather bed, despite the wine and the lateness of the hour. Tom had left a jug of hot milk on the table, wrapped in a towel. He smiled a little at that, touched by Tom’s thoughtfulness—though he hadn’t drunk warm milk in twenty years and didn’t feel sufficiently desperate as to start now.
He lay down on the bed again, hoping that recumbency might lead to a gradual relaxation, but didn’t put out the candle. For some time, he watched the glow from the fire animate the scenes on the wallpaper, his hand flat on the empty space beside him. How many times had he seen those calm blue scenes? He had been a regular visitor at Helwater since the early days of his commission, when the Dunsanys’ son, Gordon, had invited him to stay. Gordon had been killed in the Jacobite Rising, and the Dunsanys, in their grief, had adopted Grey as a sort of foster son. Now they had lost a daughter, as well.
How old had Geneva been, the first time he had come? Four? Five?
“Do you see that one?” he whispered, as though to an invisible companion. “The one with the sailing boat? That’s my favorite. I can imagine sailing down the Dutch canals, seeing all the windmills turn.”
What’s a windmill, sir? The whispered words were only in his mind, but his arm bent, curling in memory around a little girl who’d crept into his room in the middle of the night, frightened by a nightmare.
“A great tall mill, something like the mill by the river. Grindstones, you know. But it has no wheel for the water to turn. Instead, there are large sails, four of them, like arms, on the top of the mill. The wind makes them go round, and thus the corn is ground. There’s one on the wall—do you see it?”
But he heard no answer; only the quiet pop and hiss of damp in the burning peat. His arm relaxed, and he smoothed the coverlet gently with his hand, as though it were a small girl’s disheveled, silky hair, to be tucked back within her nightcap.
He stayed thus for some time, thoughts drifting, staring at the flickering blue shapes on the wall. Became aware that he was still stroking the coverlet, slowly, but that the image in his mind was no longer that of a child’s hair. Soft, but coarser. Springy curls. Dark. And an imagined sense of warmth from the skin beneath.
“Jesus,” he said, and curled his hand into a fist. Rising, he crossed the room and jerked open the armoire. He groped, searching in the dimness for the pocket of his coat, felt no crackling of paper and gripped the cloth in sudden alarm, before catching sight of the letter, neatly set beside his hairbrushes on the shelf where Tom had placed it.
He took it up, heart beating faster, and tilted the paper. The lock of hair fell out into his hand. Dark, a single curl, tied with red thread.
I cannot stop thinking of you.
He unfolded the letter and read the line again, for the pleasure of seeing the words upon the page. Gazed at them for several moments, then carefully folded the paper again, and set it back in place.
In all truth, the words caused him as much disturbance as pleasure. He had not expected thoughts of Percy to follow him to Helwater, and was not sure of his feelings. He hoped, to be sure, that they might discover something between them. But what that something might be, or come to be, he had no notion. If it happened at all, though, he envisioned it happening in London. London was a separate world, almost as though he were a different person there.
He did, on the other hand, know very well what his feelings were for Jamie Fraser. And being at Helwater, no more than a hundred yards from Fraser’s physical presence, was sufficiently disturbing in itself. He had the irrational feeling that to take such pleasure in Percy’s note was in some way a betrayal—but of what, for God’s sake?
Moved by impulse, he drew back the heavy blue-velvet drapes at the window. It was a cloudy night, a thick rain still falling, but the sky held a faint sullen glow, the diffuse light of a hidden moon. He could see the dim outline of the stable roof through the streaks of rain on the windowpane.
“Hell,” he said softly, left the window abruptly, and wandered round the room, picking up objects at random and putting them down again. He tried to return to his earlier thoughts—or to abandon all thought, purging the mind for sleep—but his efforts were bootless. James Fraser remained stubbornly in the center of his mind’s eye. Grey had seen him once since his arrival—he had taken Grey’s horse to the stables—but had had no opportunity to speak to him.
For God’s sake, John, be careful.
His mother’s words rang abruptly in his ear, and he shook his head, as though to dislodge an annoying mosquito.
And what, for God’s sake, had his mother meant by that? Plainly, she meant Fraser; it was mention of the man and his Jacobite connexions that had frightened—yes, frightened—her. Why? What on earth did she think he might ask of Fraser? Or learn from him?
Something regarding his father’s death. Those words came cold, from the dark recesses of his own mind. He shoved them reflexively away. His father had been dead for nearly seventeen years. He thought now and then of his father, but never of his death. And didn’t mean to think of it now.
Such mortal thoughts, though, reminded him suddenly again of Geneva. Where was she tonight? Not in a spiritual sense—he trusted vaguely that she must be in heaven, though he had no concrete notion of the place—but in the physical?
The funeral would be tomorrow. Her body…He glanced uneasily at the black night outside his window, as though she might be floating there, pale face staring in at him, her chestnut hair pasted to her skull by the pouring rain.
He pulled the curtains firmly shut. She would be in her coffin, ready for the procession to the church in the morning. Was she somewhere in the house? Surely she did not lie in some hogg house or desolate shed on the grounds?
The chapel. Of course. The thought came to him at once. He had never been in the chapel at Helwater; it dated from a much earlier century, when the Viscounts of the Wastwater had been Catholic, and it had been disused for years. He knew where it was, though; Geneva herself had shown him, waving a careless hand toward the small stone chamber that clung barnaclelike to the west side of the house.
“That’s the old chapel,” she had said. “We have a ghost there, did you know?”
“Well, I should hope so,” he had replied, jesting. “All respectable families have at least one, do they not?”
She had looked at him queerly for a moment, but then laughed.
“Ours is a monk, a young man who kneels in prayer in the chapel at night. What kind of ghost has your family, then, Lord John?”
“Oh, we are not sufficiently respectable as to have an actual ghost of our own,” he assured her gravely. “Nothing but the odd skeleton in the closet.”
That had made her laugh immoderately—little did she know how true his remarks had been, he reflected, with a slight smile at the memory. The smile faded at the realization that he would not hear her laugh again.
He felt her absence suddenly and keenly. He had been so occupied with the grief of her family that he had felt her loss only as theirs, terrible, but experienced at a safe remove; now, in the deep solitude of the night, he understood it as his own. He stood for a moment, bereavement a sudden, small tear in his soul.
Unable to bear this for long, he reached with sudden decision for the armoire and found his cloak, threw it round his shoulders, pushed his feet into felt slippers, and went out into the corridor, easing the door softly to behind him. He would say farewell to her, at least, in private.
Discovering from within a room he had only seen from without was something of a challenge; Helwater, like most old houses, had been built in fits and starts as the finances and whimsy of successive viscounts allowed. Thus, it was a huge place—Lady Dunsany had told him that the entire east wing was closed in winter—and no passage went straightforwardly anywhere.